Fiddling while Rome Burns

OK, things are not as bad as when Emperor Nero blithely ignored the collapse of civilization around him, but they're pretty bad. And recent reactions on the left/central/mainstream foundation front to the latest NCRP report on politically conservative foundations only makes me think we're really not putting our resources where they need to be.

Here's what I mean. NCRP has just published the third in a series of studies dating back to at least the mid 1990s on the strategies and successes of politically conservative foundations. These reports (available at provide independent analysis of foundation grantmaking strategies, well placed in the context of larger political, social and economic trends, and draw careful assessments of what worked and didn't work from the perspective of the foundations involved. The newest one, Axis of Ideology, and its predecessors go on to make useful recommendations about how these foundations achieve their goals. The recommendations draw on such easy to implement strategies as staying the course for the long-term, funding core operations, taking the lead from the nonprofits, funding advocacy, and working with other funding peers.

What's amazing about this? Several things. First, this is perhaps the best example of useful evaluation of foundation grantmaking and its done not by the foundations doing the work but by a truly independent organization. Not only that, the organizations that support NCRP are at the opposite end of the political spectrum from those funders being studied in this work. Yes, you heard that correctly, the left funds the NCRP so it can continue to study the right and point out how successful the right is in advancing its agenda - that must clearly be taken as a sign of evaluative success when those working against you say "yes, they've got it right." Second, the recommendations that NCRP draws from studying the politically conservative foundations continue to cause much conversation among other funders, but very few have tried to operate in the same way in pursuit of progressive (or even centrist) political goals. In other words, we act amazed each time these studies come out, but we don't change our behavior.

Finally, and here's where the fiddling comes into play, in the years since NCRP and Sally Covington first brought to light the remarkable success of politically conservative foundations in supporting the advance of their agenda, center and left foundations have not just not adopted the same kinds of sucessful strategies to advance a different agenda, they've focused on completely other issues. What do I mean? Since 1997 the politically conservative foundations have continued to provide core operating support to their nonprofit partners, to stay with organizations through thick and thin, and to fund advocacy. Meanwhile, the center/left/mainstream (present company included), have put enormous resources into studying grantee satisfaction, investing in knowledge management, building capacity, creating affinity groups, studying the professionalization of philanthropy, launching communications and evaluation offices, and otherwise focusing on improving their own operations. We seem excessively concerned with how we operate as funders and not with what we accomplish.

Maybe its time to really focus on advancing the missions and goals of center or left or progressive or mainstream foundations and not be so concerned with issues that matter most to the very small circle of professional foundation executives, advisors and consultants. In other words, its time to get the job done, not worry so much about how we do it.

In other people's words (other links that may be of interest:)

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